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Amherst Cove, Newfoundland's Jason Holley has always approached creating art from the democratic eye of a craftsmen. Playing with audience perception, his fragile yet industrial-like sculptures challenge gallery etiquette conventions.

The artist gained significant critical attention last September when he won the RBC Emerging Artist People's Choice Award, in partnership with the Gardiner Museum, for his chainmaille entry, Shelter [below, right].

Holley's work is currently on display at the Artist Project Toronto, a four-day juried contemporary art fair being held at Exhibition Place. TORO spoke with him about making his audience uncomfortable, the tragic surprises of working with a kiln, and invigorating Newfoundland and Labrador's artistic community.

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You smash some of your work to "disturb" your audience. Please explain.

I originally designed my sculptures to look like old relics pulled from the bottom of the ocean. I was actually too effective in this pursuit. People didn’t get it. They thought my sculptures were metal. One of the pieces had a chipped ring, and people kept twisting it to hide the flaw. They became nervous when they realized the work was fragile. I want to shove this fragility in people’s faces.

Smashing it almost turns your work into performance art.shelter-72dpi-1024x682.jpg

I’ve always wanted my work to be more performance based, but most galleries won’t approve because of insurance reasons. Last year, at the Artist Project, the competition theme was "Anarchy." So I made my way through the crowd and destroyed my piece and walked away. Everyone was drinking free wine and looked at me and said, "Holy shit!"

Other than destroying it, is there an ideal way for people to interact with your art?

Yes, I really want people to get in there and touch it. I encourage buyers to put my work on tables and bookshelves — high traffic areas — rather than safe places. If they get damaged, then you have a conversation piece. But mostly, my sculptures are fun to handle. I’m a tactile person that makes tactile stuff. I think it’s kind of sad when you can’t touch a piece. But I understand, especially when art gallery security guards are as big as they are!

You use the Japanese Raku method instead of a conventional kiln. What does that do to your work aesthetically?

It started as an experiment. With Raku firing, I get to take the work out of the kiln when it gets to its highest temperature — about 2,000 degree — and put it into something that will burn. This changes the glaze. Usually, you let a kiln cool down first. The Raku messes things up; it’s unpredictable.

Unlike most art forms, ceramics can be destroyed without the artist’s control. Is it devastating when you lose a piece of work?

It’s devastating when you lose something close to a deadline [Laughs]. With ceramics, you open the kiln and you don’t know what you’re going to get. It’s just a part of it. You learn to let go.

holley1.jpgYou’re most known for your chainmaille sculptures. How long do you work with a theme before you get bored and move on?

That’s a pertinent question these days. I do have a feeling the chainmaille theme is coming to an end, though it’s interested me longer than I thought. I’ve got to put a lot of faith into other projects while meeting the deadlines for what’s given me success.

As Bob Dylan says: "An artist has got to be constantly in a state of becoming."

Totally, but if you want to sculpt, you have to show people your work a few times. You can’t change completely every year or two. Then again, if you don’t change enough, you become mind-numbingly bored.

Is there something about the Newfoundland artist community that is unique to the rest of the Country?

We’re a small community. Not too long ago, we had the most artists per capita in the downtown St. John’s area code. But even still, there’s not that many people there to begin with [Laughs]. I never had any confidence when I left the island because I didn’t know if I sucked. The community’s incredibly supportive but there’s not that much in the way of criticism. Between the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador and VANL-CARFAC, we’re trying to get that discussion going.

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